10 truly iconic American diners
Monday, July 24, 2017
For nearly a century, hungry travelers have relied on the classic American diner for fast, affordable comfort food. Like baseball, grandma's apple pie and Elvis, a shiny bullet-shaped diner certainly plucks the heartstrings of American nostalgia.
"As a uniquely American creation, diners are and always will be a melting pot of good food and good people," says Richard Gutman, author of "American Diner Then & Now."
In his book, Gutman identifies 35 companies that manufactured diners (also commonly called dining cars or lunch cars) from the early 1900s onward. Most of them are similar in design to railway dining cars, and the great majority of them were built in the northeastern U.S.
Nearly 10,000 diners were factory-built, and they peaked in popularity between the 1920s and 1950s. Only a few dozen authentic examples remain in operation today.
Five companies led the pack in turning out prefabricated diners. The top manufacturer was the Jerry O'Mahony Diner Co. of Elizabeth, New Jersey, an operation that produced more than 2,000 diners between 1917 and 1941.
Worcester Lunch Car Co. of Worcester, Massachusetts, was another leading manufacturer, building about 700 diners from 1906 to 1942. Other important makers included Fodero Dining Car Co. of Bloomfield, New Jersey, Silk City Diners of Patterson, New Jersey, and Sterling Diners of Merrimac, Massachusetts.
We've tracked down living examples from each of these makers — 10 of them in total — and should your travels take you anywhere close by, we encourage you to go retro and give them a try.
1. A1 Diner
Here's an original Worcester Dining Car that hasn't changed much in 60 years. Walking into the stainless steel enclosure with its quintessential neon lighting and mahogany booths is like stepping back in time.
Staples here include pancakes, biscuits, burgers, meatloaf sandwiches and homemade soups, along with some nonconventional dishes such as duck with mojito glaze, kimchi and ramen.
2. The Blue Benn
History is now as you tie into an oversized platter of blueberry pancakes at this beautifully preserved 1940s diner fabricated by Silk City. Play your favorite songs on the jukebox at your booth while you eat. All meals here are fresh cooked and fast vanishing.
Breakfast, highlighted by such dishes as huevos rancheros and spinach pesto omelets, is served all day. Luncheon and dinner specialties include turkey pot pie, roast beef melt and a tasty spinach and lentil enchilada. Save room for some homemade tapioca pudding.
3. Wilson's Diner
Built in 1949 by the Worcester Lunch Car Co. and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Wilson's also played a bit part in the 2013 movie "Labor Day." Generally, however, it serves as a no-nonsense source for a well-priced breakfast or lunch.
The breakfast-oriented menu features such popular dishes as walnut, blueberry or chocolate chip pancakes, crunchy caramel French toast and a huge variety of egg based meals including eight varieties of eggs Benedict and 20 different kinds of omelets.
4. Miss Worcester Diner
Known around its working-class neighborhood as "Miss Woo," this busy diner is located just across the street from the Worcester Lunch Car Co. from which it sprang in 1948. In its day, the company (now defunct) used Lunch Car #812 as a showroom and test bed for new features. It was listed on the National Register of Historic places in 2003.
Take a stool at the long marble counter or grab a booth to sample a menu heavy on breakfast dishes, including its ever-popular inches-thick French toast — or your choice from a multinational list of Italian, Polish, Polynesian, Mexican, Irish or American breakfast plates.
5. Modern Diner
Pawtucket, Rhode Island
Here's yet another historic diner — the first, in fact, to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places back in 1978. Manufactured in 1940, it is one of only two known surviving Sterling Streamliner diners still in operation.
Guests choose from 30-plus daily specials — mostly of a breakfast nature — posted on the wall near the entrance. Favorites usually on the list include custard French toast, cranberry-apple French toast, lobster Benedict, lemon poppy pancakes with whipped cream cheese, and potato pancakes topped with hash and poached eggs.
6. Historic Village Diner
Red Hook, New York
A distinctive example of early 20th-century American roadside architecture, this handsome 1920s Silk City diner embodies the distinguishing characteristics of the streamlined metal railroad dining car that inspired its design.
There's always a crowd at this popular Hudson Valley diner, especially on weekend mornings when road-trippers arrive to fuel up on a fresh-baked selection of muffins and donuts. There's an extensive lunch and dinner menu as well, featuring such dishes as Philly cheesesteak sandwiches, meatloaf, honey-dipped fried chicken, homemade clam chowder and liver and onions.
7. The Empire Diner
New York City, New York
This 1946 Fodero Dining Car Company diner nestled in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood has retained its original Art Moderne exterior — but the interior has been transformed into a slick upscale retro restaurant.
Chef John De Lucie delivers straightforward American classics, including juicy burgers and fantastic fries, but he also cooks ups some more sophisticated fare including crispy artichokes with aioli, beef carpaccio with horseradish cream, potato rosti with chives, and braised beef short rib.
8. Summit Diner
Summit, New Jersey
Situated across the street from the train station in Summit, this 1939 diner from the Jerry O'Mahony Diner Co. is a favorite with commuters and is home to some of New Jersey's power elite. Jim Cramer, the screaming stock market expert seen on CNBC, is a regular; so is Jon Corazine, the former New Jersey governor. Original menus hang framed on the wall, and a black marble bar supports the elbows of patrons seated on 24 red leatherette stools facing the grill.
Favorite dishes here include the Taylor ham with egg and cheese sandwich, spanakopita (Greek spinach pie), grilled salmon over greens, and a killer dessert named ekmek kataifi. It's a Greek pastry made with phyllo, custard, honey, whipped cream and almonds.
908-277-3256, No website
9. Mickey's Diner
St. Paul, Minnesota
St. Paul's Art Deco landmark (a 1939 Jerry O'Mahony model) boasts a long list of media credits, including appearances on the Food Network series "Unwrapped," "Roker on the Road" and Rachel Ray's "Tasty Travels." It has been seen on the pages of Smithsonian, National Geographic and Elle magazines and has served as a location for scenes in a half-dozen movies.
Family owned and operated for three generations, Mickey's is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. A four-page menu leads off with breakfast specials — served all day and including dozens of egg dishes, pancakes and waffles — and continues with an appetizing retinue of burgers, patty melts, fish and chips, mulligan stew, bean soup and old-fashioned hand-dipped malts and shakes.
10. Road Island Diner
This streamline moderne diner from Jerry O'Mahony Diner Company may be the most well-traveled diner in the nation. It began life in 1939 to serve as an exhibition in the New York World's Fair. After the fair, it saw duty in Massachusetts and Rhode Island until 2007 when it was purchased by a Utah businessman and moved to the Utah mountain town of Oakley, near Park City, where it holds the distinction of being the only authentic prewar Art Deco streamline diner west of the Mississippi River.
Serving three meals a day from Thursday through Sunday, Road Island Diner's breakfast menu features omelets, frittatas, biscuits and gravy, corned beef hash and chorizo. Lunch and dinner specials include roasted lamb sandwiches, hummus wrap, meatloaf sandwiches, house-made macaroni and cheese, ribs, steaks and chicken.
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